Why it’s Good to be an Industrial Engineer during Difficult Economic Times

It’s hard to find a time where having an industrial engineering degree wouldn’t be beneficial, even during times of economic instability. Those that plan for and react to economic downturns will have an advantage compared to others. Luckily, the skills gained while studying industrial engineering are always marketable, especially during difficult times. During economic lows, they are called upon to create efficient processes, reduce resource requirements and streamline operations. Four ISE Alumni – Patrick Murray, Misha Dawson, Tony Blevins and Jeff Johnson – share their experience working in a changing economy and why their skills in industrial engineering are critical, especially during the lows.

Patrick Murray

In the fall of 1987, Patrick Murray was a senior at NC State. Then, on October 19th, a day now called Black Monday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell over 22%. This decline was the most significant one day fall since the Great Depression. “Whispers of worry began to circulate among the seniors and some grad students. The economy was in bad shape; what would happen to our job prospects?” Murray said. After Thanksgiving, “A few students talked about job interviews being canceled or postponed. As we were getting ready for fall exams, we heard from our classmates about more canceled interviews with companies like IBM, Nortel, JP Stevens, Data General, Dupont, Burlington, Milliken, RJReyonlds, Fieldcrest, etc. We were caught off-guard, this was supposed to be our great final year of college, everything was supposed to be coming up like roses just like it was for the students a year ahead of us.”

Over winter break, Murray focused on typing up cover letters, mailing out resumes and working for his professor. “As the Spring semester started, there was great concern about having a job offer before graduation,” Murray reflected. As students prepared for spring break, word got around that some students were receiving offers from small companies. “I finally heard from Intel, an offer for a full-time position in California as they had a solid business year in 1987 with the growth of the PC market. They were looking for people with PC architecture knowledge, which I had picked up working on projects with IE professors,” he stated. There was a demand from companies for optimization, efficiency, and process improvement skills after Black Monday, areas where industrial engineers are known to be experts. “The economic downturn created opportunities for engineers and students to help companies improve how they did things and run their operations leaner.”

Misha Dawson

It was the downturn of a specific industry that impacted Misha Dawson. In the early 2000s, the cell phone manufacturing company that she worked for had decided to relocate some of its facilities to other countries. This move left Dawson without a job. “The cell phone manufacturer provided pay for about two months before starting severance for its impacted employees. Within that time frame, I was able to attend a job fair and receive two job offers on the same day,” she said.

Fortunately, Dawson was able to begin a new job in the Aerospace and Defense Industry on the same day that her severance started. “Nineteen years later, I am still with Aerospace and Defense. I never missed a paycheck during that transition period. Additionally, I have never missed a paycheck in the twenty-five years I’ve been working since graduating from NCSU with my BS in Industrial Engineering,” she said. “The skills learned as an industrial engineer do not go ‘out of style’” Dawson explained. “Companies are always looking for ways to remain competitive by becoming more agile, by leaning out their processes and by continuously improving their operations.”

Tony Blevins

Tony Blevins experienced several economic downturns as an industrial engineer. He recalled the 2001 dotcom bust when the stock market crashed after excessive speculation in internet-related companies as the most dramatic. The Nasdaq rose 400 percent before plummeting. By the end of its fall, it had lost 76 percent of all of its value, including the 400 percent gain. “I recall Silicon Valley being a near fantasyland of young, brilliant minds who had no ceiling on their ambitions and expectations, and virtually no concept of stagnation — much less failure,” he said. “The haute term was’ silicon-illionaire.’ It was a period of unbridled enthusiasm for new ideas and opportunities.”

When the dotcom bubble burst, many were caught off guard. “The ‘new’ economy essentially shattered more rapidly than its ascent,” Blevins stated. However, this experience taught him to understand how boom and bust cycles work and how to plan for them. “During ‘boom’ cycles, industrial engineers are immediately called upon to devise ways to increase capacities and throughput, etc.” He explained. “Likewise, industrial engineers are also in high demand during ‘bust’ cycles, as focal areas shift to cost management/containment and economic efficiencies.” This experience also led Blevins to be aware of and prepare for change. “I subscribe to the theory that change is the single constant in our lives,” he said. “Thankfully, industrial engineers have a broad and multi-disciplined background that provides a wide range of opportunities and fields to endeavor.”

Jeff Johnson

In the fall of 2008, Jeff Johnson was involved in acquiring a failing US energy trading company. “While I was no longer practicing industrial engineering, I used my IE skills to evaluate the operations of this business, including systems, processes, and organization,” he said. His team had only one week to complete a full evaluation and prepare an offer for bankruptcy administrators. “I think the core of an ISE’s advantage is an understanding of business systems and processes, both technological and organizational, and tools for continuous improvement that will be necessary for helping change an enterprise,” Johnson stated. Once the offer was accepted, they conducted more detailed systems analysis and staffing analysis to see where improvements were needed. “In tough times, everything must move quicker, and management depends on this broader, systemic understanding so that outcomes can be better predicted,” said Johnson. “Dealing with ‘change’ is normal for an industrial engineer.”

Moving Forward

What should students do during this particular downturn? Blevins recommended concentrating on a breadth of knowledge and skills rather than depth. “It has been my experience that someone with broad skills and knowledge learns new things much faster and more effectively than someone whose knowledge is conversely deep but not broad,” he stated. Since the future is uncertain, and change is inevitable, it is vital to be adaptable and ready for whatever comes next. “I would also advise graduates that they can immensely enhance their candidacy for a specific position by doing ‘homework’ about a target company/industry and then suitably customizing a resume and interview pitch,” he suggested. Johnson also recommended looking into companies to see where students can use their skills. “By looking at various companies and industries, I believe the students will get an idea of where ISE skills could be or are being used,” he said. “This may help the students think about new job opportunities and may help recent grads with ideas they could apply where they work.”

All four alumni agree on one thing: being an industrial engineer during challenging times is a good thing. “Companies that are growing or shrinking have one thing in common, they are dealing with change, and the ISE skill set can help,” said Johnson. As change disrupts global supply chain and logistics networks, companies must adapt to be successful. Industrial engineers are crucial for the transition to occur. “I would like to encourage and help the next generation of industrial engineers,” Blevins remarked. “I have full confidence that their skills and knowledge base will have them well-prepared for success and prosperity.”